Helicopter operations for service technicians As communications sites become more remote, helicopters may become as commonplace for installation, service and maintenance trips as panel trucks. Learn how to use this means of transportation to your customer
Most of today’s field technicians will have at least one, if not many, opportunities to experience helicopter transportation.
First-timers can use the following information to appear at least somewhat “helicopter-literate.” It also gives some insight on proper safety procedures.
In Alaska, as in many other places with abundant mountains, mountaintops make fine platforms for linking modern telecommunications systems. As the “drive-up” locations fill to capacity, and as intermodulation interference (intermod) becomes more prevalent, many system engineers look for communications site locations with better isolation.
The helicopter plays a valuable role in locating potential sites, making a proper site survey, mobilizing the site equipment and providing continual access to the site for service and maintenance. Because most of these sites have buildings, towers and guy wires, the amount of maneuvering area available to a pilot normally is somewhat limited. This restriction can put you, the field technician, in a precarious position if it makes loading and unloading the helicopter more difficult.
No matter where you load a helicopter, whether on a building, an oil drilling platform, a parking lot or the airport tarmac, safety always should be the main concern. If you load the equipment at the airport, the pilot or co-pilot must accompany you upon entering the airstrip. You may need proper clearance and identification attached to any vehicle used to transport equipment to the helicopter. Most helicopter operators require the pilot or co-pilot to ride along with you when transporting anything to the helicopter.
Before loading equipment, tools or other items, keep in mind that helicopters are made primarily of aluminum. They dent easily, especially from the inside. It is not advisable to sling your toolbox up to any old spit; rather, it is better to consult the pilot on a location. Even better, he may want to load the gear for you! It can be fun watching someone else struggle with your tool cases. Any lengthy items, such as an antenna mast, lumber and shovels, must be carried to and from the helicopter in a horizontal position–a good practice even when the helicopter’s engine is shut down.
If possible, talk for a few minutes with your pilot. Find out what requirements he may have or what he may expect from you. Every pilot has different requirements, so pay close attention. Pilots are skilled professionals with a job to do. Never treat them like a taxi driver. Adverse treatment will only make it hard on the next engineer or technician–and that person may even be you.
Sometimes there may be no opportunity to talk with the pilot before loading. You may have to load the helicopter at a remote location, while the rotor blades are still turning, a condition referred to as loading hot. Before the helicopter arrives, take a few minutes to secure your gear, and weight down any light boxes, extra coats or loose materials. Many times I use my tool cases for weight. Inspect the landing area for anything light, such as pieces of plywood, two-by-fours, sticks, lengths of rope or tarps, and secure them. The helicopter’s downwash can move heavy sheets of plywood with ease, so do not underestimate the power of the rotor blades.
Something as harmless-looking as a plastic bag can be sucked up by the rotor blades, hitting either a blade’s leading edge and causing a ding where most of the integrity of the blade is, or entering the air intake system to be sucked into the engine. The result could range from not flying that aircraft that day to injury or loss of life. The cost of damage to the helicopter might be billed to the customer or to you. Always take a few minutes to police the landing area before the helicopter arrives.
Always approach the helicopter from the front, and only the front. If possible, let the rotors come to a complete stop, unless for some reason shutting down the engine is not possible. Never approach the aircraft from an uphill angle where the terrain is not level. After arriving at the front, determine whether you will load from the left or right side. Most of the time, the pilot will signal you to the side he prefers for loading. Pay close attention to his hand signals if you are loading hot.
The pilot is in charge at all times when it comes to anything that may affect helicopter operations. He decides whether the weather is satisfactory for flying and whether a site is suitable for landing. Never attempt to push the pilot into an uncomfortable situation. He is ultimately responsible for any actions regarding his aircraft.
Danger zone The tail rotor has always been the most dangerous element in any helicopter operation. Most pre-flight deaths involving helicopters can be attributed to the tail rotor. A vital system in the helicopter, the tail rotor counteracts the rotational force applied by the main rotor to the ship’s airframe. The tail rotor keeps the helicopter’s cabin from spinning with the main rotor. Unfortunately, the tail rotor has been an instrument of death to almost everyone who finds himself too close to it. It spins at three times the speed of the main rotor, so fast that the human eye cannot see it. Most pilots get extremely nervous if you venture too close to the rear of the aircraft. They are likely to take a few minutes to let you know about it, quite possibly in front of your customer. In all the years I’ve been flying in helicopters, I have never heard it explained to anyone at a volume less than 90db. “Stay away from the rear of the helicopter.”
Some helicopters that operate over or near large bodies of water are fitted with inflatable flotation devices mounted either on the side of the cabin or on the landing skids. Be careful when loading equipment or passengers not step on or otherwise make contact with these floats. Aircraft with floats normally incorporate a emergency window evacuation system to allow you to exit the aircraft without damaging the floats in the event of a water landing.
Pre-flight The pilot will give you a quick pre-flight overview before take-off. You will be shown the emergency features available on that aircraft, along with the location of the emergency locator transmitter (ELT). The emergency evacuation procedures will be explained. Pay close attention to what is being said; you may need that information some day–maybe even that day.
Take-off The time has come to fasten your seat belt. Your tools and equipment are secure, your door is completely shut, and you have remembered everything–except the restroom. Another 90db talk from the pilot? Let’s hope not. But while we are on the subject, remember to carry a few heavy trash bags when you fly to remote locations, because restrooms and helicopters seldom see much of each other. Be prepared to pack out everything you have packed in, including boxes and equipment packing. Never burn refuse at a remote location. Following these guidelines will help to keep the environment friendly and, most important, the customer happy.
Most mountaintops are owned by the state or federal government. Access is allowed by permit. These locations are continually monitored for infractions that could result in the permit being revoked.
With the sound of the turbines whining, the whop of the main rotor gaining speed, you lift off. Never distract the pilot during take-off or landing. These maneuvers require full concentration. The pilot has good visibility to the sides and the front of the aircraft, but some blind spots remain to the rear of the helicopter. During flight, if you spot another aircraft approaching from the rear, you might point it out to the pilot. The best way to inform the flight crew of other air traffic is over the intercom, if there are extra headsets available, or you may want to hand the pilot a note. Never do this in a way that may create a panic, normally there is plenty of time for the pilot to react.
It is hoped that the pilot is familiar with your destination. Always bring your own coordinates just in case, especially if it is a mountaintop site. Now is the time to pull out your new camera and take all those aerial photos you have always wanted to take but that you could not take because you could not afford to pay for a helicopter ride. Helicopter time is expensive, so use it efficiently.
Helicopter transportation is safer travel than driving a car. The navigation and safety systems are the best available, and maintenance is an ongoing process carried out by highly skilled professionals. All of the pilots I have encountered are level-minded and safety-conscious. Trust their judgment. During the flight is a perfect time to relax. (This is normally when I have a chance to indulge in my latest copy of Mobile Radio Technology or to catch up on lost sleep.)
Landing When you reach your destination, be it a heliport on an oil-drilling rig, a mountaintop, the top of a building or the airport, check the aircraft interior before departing to ensure that you have everything you brought with you, including any trash created during the flight. If conditions permit it, the pilot will shut the engine down and bring the rotors to a complete stop before you depart the aircraft. At times, high winds or a small landing area will force you to unload your equipment and tools and disembark with the rotors still turning. Remember to exit toward the front of the aircraft, staying clear of the danger zones. The helicopter may need to be repositioned to a nearby location where the engine can be shut down safely. I always carry an aviation hand-held transceiver to help in arranging the departure. A prearranged pickup time also works, but you must be on the lookout for declining weather conditions that may change your departure plans.
Follow the reverse procedures for off-loading the aircraft. The pilot should be eager to allow you to unload your own tools. Check to be sure that the aircraft is left clean. Attention to small matters such a these can be a direct reflection on the quality of your work.